One of my favorite authors has a new book. You may know her; she’s been a guest on CrimeReaders twice before, and she never disappoints. Jean Rabe (pronounced RAY-bee) is a relative newcomer to the crime fiction community, but that doesn’t mean she’s new to writing. She’s been writing and editing fantasy novels and short stories since 1996 and was a USA Today bestselling fantasy author long before she turned her hand to mysteries.
She first dipped her toe into crime fiction with The Dead of Winter, the first in her Piper Blackwell series. Piper Blackwell is 23 years old and one less than an hour into her first day as a small-town sheriff when she finds stumbles across a grisly murder. Jean is conscientious about her research into the world of law enforcement, and it shows. Her forensics and tactics are accurate, and her characters are always believable. The violence isn’t gory, but it has real weight. The victims aren’t throw-aways. They matter. With three Piper Blackwell novels and a stand-alone called The Bone Shroud, Jean is already making a name for herself in the crime fiction community. Now she has a brand new Piper book out, and boy, does she deliver. I think this is my favorite yet.
Jean has graciously agreed to talk with us about The Dead of Jerusalem Ridge.
Let’s welcome her to CrimeReaders.
Hey, Jean! First, let me start by saying you really knocked this out of the park. The Dead of Jerusalem Ridge is a fantastic book. Without spoilers, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Hmmmmmmmm. That’s a hard one. Jerusalem Ridge gives Piper Blackwell a chance to reconnect with her old Army buddies and to get out of the office. She can do some soul-searching, kick back, and then have a harrowing adventure because I’m not one to let a main character have a good time without consequences.
At the same time, I get to divide the department along the state line, giving her chief deputy and her detective the starring roles in a hate crime. I thought it was important to let the more experienced characters shine. Yeah, Piper is the main character, but she’s not the only one in the sheriff’s department, and it was time to highlight some of the others. Even Teegan gets her own chapter.
I loved the opening chapter of this book, especially with the double twist near the end of it. It’s the kind of scene that’s very hard to pull off. Can you talk about how you came up with that chapter and why you used it to open the book?
I had fun starting The Dead of Summer with a big action scene, and so I wanted an action scene to kick off The Dead of Jerusalem Ridge. But I didn’t want a disaster, as I needed something different and not as deadly.
I started by researching rural places in Kentucky, called a few sheriff departments, and found a spot where cell phones do not work because you can’t get a signal. No calling for reinforcements. My setting selected, I mulled over all sorts of possibilities of what my characters could do in a remote area to have fun.
Then I searched on Amazon to find the gear, and I emailed a friend who is into firearms and asked his advice.
The chapter starts out with Piper playing soldier again, a chance to go back to her roots.
The book tackles hate and intolerance toward those considered “other.” What influenced your decision to center that focus on a Buddhist center?
The Buddhist angle started with my first Piper book, The Dead of Winter, when the murder victim’s son comes back from Thailand, where he was serving at a Buddhist temple. In the second Piper book, he decides to stay in his inherited house. In the third Piper book, the bigot neighbor across the street gets riled up when the character turns that house into a Buddhist Cultural Center. So the fourth Piper book was a natural fit for everything to boil over on that little county road. I respect Buddhist culture, and I love smattering in quotes from the bhikkhu that will make the other characters (and maybe the readers) think.
The world is so much more interesting and rich when all ages and cultures are embraced. I’ve been criticized because I have too much representation in my little mysteries. Piper is young, white, and a “protestant of some stripe.” Her boyfriend is Vietnamese-American. Chief Deputy Oren Rosenburg is retirement age and Jewish. The coroner is Jewish also, and she’s married to a woman attorney. Piper’s go-to deputy is Latino. The department’s detective is a thirty-something black man who was a decorated gang and narcotics officer in downtown Chicago and got tired of all the gun violence. My dispatchers consist of a goth who is in her mid-forties, continually adds tattoos, and dresses like Morticia; and an eighteen-year-old admitted geek, who enjoys comic books, games, and is a whiz on the computer. The demographics of the county skews white, with a small black and Hispanic element. Is it unrealistic for this meld of characters to operate in a sheriff’s department in a small county? Maybe, but I like them, and like writing about them. And I did sit along the sidewalk in Rockport, Indiana, and watched the variety of people who strolled by.
There’s also a theme of loneliness and disappointment that runs through the book—Oren’s lingering disappointment at not being elected sheriff, Teegan’s unfulfilled hope that someone would remember her birthday, Chris’s fraying emotions after his wife leaves. How did that influence the choices you made about the main plot?
I wanted to focus on unfulfilled dreams, dashed hopes. When I had started the book, I had just lost my old pug, Wrinkles, and so I was all doom and gloom, stuck in a funk. It affected my outlook, and I’m sure it had something to do with my plotting. Somewhere in the back of my head, I must have said: “Let’s give all the characters an awful day.” And then: “What can I do to make it worse?”
But at the same time, there are uplifting elements in the book, and character growth. They get some good times mixed in with the bad. And I have seeds for another Piper story because of it.
What is the most interesting or unusual thing you learned or did while doing research for this book? Any adventures you found yourself involved in?
One of the most awful things I learned was that Spencer County—in real life—had a woman in charge of their animal shelter some years back who killed kittens by throwing them in a freezer. Really. Good thing she got caught.
I also discovered something nifty about what might be hiding somewhere in Kentucky … but that would give away the plot.
Tell us a little bit about this braided plot you use in the first half of the book. The book begins with Piper in Kentucky and Oren covering Spencer County. What were some of the challenges of using that structure, and what made you decide to?
I wanted to give a case to Oren and Basil, and to do that, I had to send Piper elsewhere. The sheriff, she wants to have her fingers in everything … I would want that if I was a sheriff. But Oren and Basil have more experience, in life and in law enforcement. To let them shine, I sent Piper on a three-day vacation across the state line. The big challenge was making sure Piper remained the star of the book, while keeping her out of her deputies’ investigation. I enjoyed delving into different Points Of View. I might try it again, down the road, but the next case will have them all focused on one thing.
Without spoilers, what is your favorite scene or character in the book, and why?
Hmmmmmmm. I have a couple of favorite scenes. I really liked my opening chapter, the feel of it and how it played out. And a scene in a bar where anger and prejudice simmer. And I also liked a few paragraphs I wrote about Nang and an adopted dog. I do a little volunteer work for a dog rescue, and so I am compelled to put dogs in my Piper books.
You’re s very prolific writer. Can you tell us about your writing process? Plotter? Pantser? Hybrid? Any writing rituals or habits? On a schedule or as the muse strikes?
I’m a plotter. Sometimes that means I write a detailed chapter outline that might be fifteen-twenty pages. I throw in character sketches if I’m introducing someone new. The more detailed my outline, the less time I spend writing the book because I know where my story is going. I always have the freedom to change it along the way, to add a victim, to change the murderer. Sometimes I don’t know who the murderer is until I’m two-thirds the way into the book.
Sometimes I use notecards. I’ll sit on the couch with my dogs and grab a stack of 3 x 5 cards and jot down scenes I want to include. I spread the cards out and order the scenes, and come up with chapters that go between them.
So how I “outline” depends on what my brain is doing. I think for the next Piper, I’ll probably use notecards because I’m getting ideas for scenes before I’m getting ideas for a murder.
You seem to have a deep understanding of the elements of crime fiction, but you have a long and illustrious career as a fantasy writer. What led you to become a mystery writer?
All the while I wrote fantasy, I read mysteries. I didn’t want to read in the genre I was writing … I didn’t want to be subconsciously influenced by what I was reading. But it did influence me; it caused me to adore mysteries. And with every mystery I read, I wanted to write one myself. I’d think, ‘oh, I’d do that differently.’ ‘I’d have used a different main character.’ ‘I would have killed the victim in a different manner.’ So I set my fantasy and sf outlines aside (I still have two or three I’d like to someday return to), and dove into mysteries.
I wanted to explore youth versus age and experience. So I set up my series with a young sheriff, perhaps elected by accident, and her sixty-five-year-old chief deputy, who had campaigned against her. They’re a little bit like sandpaper, but they work well together and let me explore my theme.
It’s more work than fantasy … at least to me … but right now it’s a lot more rewarding.
How is writing a mystery different from writing a fantasy? What are some of the challenges and considerations?
In a fantasy setting, I can create the world and make the mountains as high as I want, the weather as wild as is needed for my story, and I can use monsters as main characters. It is a wholly imaginative form, letting me paint the setting from scratch. And magic … I can use spells and artifacts and cursed maguffins. Time travel? I can use that, too.
In my mysteries I have to pay attention to real world geography, politics, climate. And if I set something in a real county, I have to get maps and all the little tourist brochures.
Too, I rely on a retired lawman for advice on how my deputies operate. I consult with a district attorney, doctors and nurses, and the occasional coroner. Sure, I have books on forensics and police procedures, but nothing beats actually talking with the experts. In my latest Piper book I also contacted Kentucky librarians and tourism officials for information … the place I set part of my book was too small to have much listed on the internet. Oh, and I even talked to the head of the Kentucky Geological Survey.
What do you hope readers will take away from your books, and from this book in particular?
I want them to have a good time and to enjoy Jerusalem Ridge. I hope they like it enough to want to read the others and to want me to write more.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I’m working on a sequel to The Love-Haight Casefiles with Donald J. Bingle. It’s a supernatural mystery set in San Francisco. (But I had to set that to the back of my desk while I do publicity for The Dead of Jerusalem Ridge) And I’ve a murder mystery set at an Ironman in California that I’m a couple of chapters into, and that I’ve set aside to concentrate on Love-Haight. And I’ve a fantasy-dinosaur thing I’m going to do this fall with Craig Martelle. And then I have another Piper planned … The Dead of … something. Maybe I’ll call it The Dead of All Hallows Eve (a reader suggested that title). Depends on the plot; all of Piper’s books so far are near a holiday. I have too much to do, eh? Oh, and I’ve some books on my editing plate.
When you aren’t writing, what do you most like to do?
I love to play toss with my dogs. Sounds boring to some, but I adore my buddies, and they all love to chase tennis balls. In the summer I have two kiddie pools—small and large—set up on my patio for the dogs. So I toss and toss and toss, and when they get hot or tired, they play in the pools. It’s a great chance to get away from the computer.
I also read, every day. Thrillers, mysteries, how-to-improve-your-writing, forensic stuff.
And I GAME … board games, war games (Axis & Allies!), and roleplaying games along the lines of Dungeons & Dragons. Lately, that’s all been online. But I’m actually playing more than I was when it was in person.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Yeah, that it’s time to go toss some tennis balls to my dogs. I’m real good at tossing tennis balls.
Want to know more about Jean Rabe? Check out her website: https://jeanrabe.com/. Scroll down to join her mailing list. She sends out a terrific newsletter with frequent contests. You might even win one of her hand-crafted pendants!